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Twitter Remains Shut Down In Nigeria After Deleting President's Tweet

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Human rights groups and international diplomats are denouncing the continued shutdown of Twitter in Nigeria. The government banned the social media network last week, cut off access to it on most communications networks and is threatening to prosecute anyone using it. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari went on Twitter last week and blasted suspected militants in the volatile southeast of the country. Buhari made reference to Nigeria's bloody civil war from 1967 to 1970, in which insurgents attempted to set up an independent Biafra state for the Igbo people. The president threatened to treat those misbehaving today in the language they understand. Twitter erupted in indignation.

AISHA SOMTOCHUKWU YESUFU: I totally condemn the tweet from the president where the president is threatening the Igbo people. He's threatening them with what happened in 1967.

BEAUBIEN: An activist, who was also involved in the #BringBackOurGirls movement, Aisha Somtochukwu Yesufu, quickly launched an #IAmIgbo campaign on Twitter. President Buhari is ethnically Fulani and fought against Igbo independence in the Biafra war. In a video posted before the platform was shut down, Yesufu said the president's tweets were unspeakable and stoking ethnic divisions.

SOMTOCHUKWU YESUFU: No Nigerian is more Nigerian than any Nigerian. And this country belongs to all of us. And nobody, nobody, nobody would denigrate any one of us from being fully Nigerian.

BEAUBIEN: Twitter eventually deleted the controversial tweet from the president, saying it violated its terms of service. Nigeria responded by banning the social network nationwide. The minister of information made the announcement on Twitter suspension on Twitter. Cellular networks and other internet providers were ordered to block access to it. Anietie Ewang with Human Rights Watch in Abuja says the abrupt suspension of Twitter is part of a pattern of arbitrary, undemocratic and repressive actions taken by the government.

ANIETIE EWANG: The director of public prosecutions has been given a directive to go ahead and prosecute anyone who tweets irrespective of the ban.

BEAUBIEN: Ewang says Twitter is a hugely important forum for public discourse in Africa's most populous nation, particularly among young people. It was the primary platform for activists last year during nationwide protests against police brutality. Nigerians used it to complain publicly when a road needed repair or a health clinic wasn't opening on time. Twitter gave ordinary citizens, Ewang says, a platform to hold government officials accountable.

EWANG: So it's completely changed the trajectory of public participation that was very exclusionary before. And it's made it easier. It's made it fast. It's made it swifter. It's made it more effective. And I think that's - it makes a lot of government officials very uncomfortable.

BEAUBIEN: The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, along with diplomats from several other nations, have denounced the suspension of Twitter in the West African nation, saying the path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less, communication.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Freetown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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